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Points of comparison: how USA survived to fight another day
by Ridge Mahoney, June 28th, 2014 1:21AM

TAGS:  world cup 2014


By Ridge Mahoney

How did the USA survive the Group of Death? Along with gutty performances and big plays at critical moments, here are a few factors that proved vital.

HOORAY FOR HOWARD. Goalkeeping is always a critical factor in a World Cup, and of the four keepers in Group G, Tim Howard earned top marks. In a major competition, teams need a keeper who handle the routine stuff and also be capable of the occasional big save to atone for an error, and Howard filled the bill despite conceding four goals.

Portugal’s first-choice keeper, Rui Patricio, missed the tournament with an injury, and with a back line depleted by injuries and the suspension of Pepe, the Portuguese never looked settled in the back. That’s not solely the fault of Beto, of course, yet it’s fair to say if Portugal had Howard in the nets there’s no way it would have conceded seven goals in the first round. Howard destroys chances by smothering through balls and snagging balls in the air, which Ghanaian keeper Fatau Dauda wasn’t able to do at a critical moment against Portugal.

With the score tied, 1-1, and Ghana capable of reaching the knockout round by winning, 2-1,  Dauda clumsily swatted a dropping ball right to Cristiano Ronaldo, whose rifled shot into the bottom corner effectively ended Ghana’s participation in the tournament. Both Ghanaian keepers -- Norwegian-bred Adam Kwarasey played against the USA -- are examples of keepers who are talented and athletic yet simply too erratic to be trusted.

Howard was especially sharp coming off his line against Portugal as the Americans recovered from conceding an early, ugly goal that put them behind. And he may have saved, literally, American chances to advance by swatting away a shot from Eder with his left hand while falling to his right. That shot, late in the first half with Portugal leading, 1-0, resulted from Howard’s whiff on a fierce shot by Nani, which rebounded off the post to Eder. Still, Howard had the opportunity to salvage the situation and did so in spectacular fashion. Keepers usually bail out their teammates but just as valuable is one who can cover for himself.

Germany’s solid play greatly limited the opportunities for opponents to test keeper Manuel Neuer and he’ll need to be sharp as the opposition gets tougher and stakes get higher in the knockout rounds. Jurgen Klinsmann’s proclamation that Howard is one of the top five keepers in the world is vintage hyperbole -- you’d get a stiff argument that he’s barely in the Premier League top five -- but all that matters is that his coaches and teammates are utterly confident in his abilities and so far at the World Cup he’s taken care of business.

MIDFIELD MARATHONERS. The good news is that Michael Bradley ran farther than any other player at the World Cup in the group stage -- let alone any midfielder in Group G. The bad news is that all that running produced enough good and bad moments to grade out pretty close to mediocre.

Covering a log of ground, while laudable in many respects, may indicate mere effort and not efficiency. During the three group games, the USA found itself in these differing scenarios: it scored in the first minute against Ghana, it fell behind Portugal in the early minutes, and played about 50 minutes tied 0-0 before Germany scored the only goal of the game.

A team that consistently falls behind will probably have to run more than the opponent to catch up, which is what the term “chasing the game” literally applies to. A team adept at keeping the ball, whether or not it has the lead, can use collective movement and range to spread out its players and force opponents to cover large areas and run considerable distances as it tries to win back possession and then launch its own attacks.

Bradley’s work totals of 12.7 km (against Ghana), 12.2 km (Portugal), and 13.1 km (Germany) add up to more than 38,000 meters, or about 23.7 miles. Central midfield partners Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman ran less, more than 1,000 fewer meters per game on average, yet still outran most of the men they opposed. Of the Group G opponents only Germany’s Phillip Lahm (11.7 km) and Toni Kroos (11.1 km) and Ghana’s Sulley Muntari (11.4 km) ran more than 11,000 meters.

Jones and Beckerman played cleaner, crisper games than did Bradley, but they were assigned smaller zones of the field to cover as Bradley tried to do his share defensively while also prompting the attack. It’s a large burden to bear in a World Cup and Klinsmann may tweak the roles and assignments against Belgium to spread out the workload while still using his players’ ability to their maximums. A heavy workload and intense pre-World Cup training may be taking their toll on Bradley, who underwent a procedure in late April to deal with a nerve problem in his foot.

The FIFA tracking statistics go into deeper detail, such as the time spent in the opponent’s half and whether the player’s activity level was low, medium or high. It’s a measure of the team’s commitment that so many of its players put in such high levels of running, yet it can also indicate sloppy play, since poor touches and stray passes often lead to turnovers, and teams without the ball are obligated to run it down.

JOKERS WILD. For decades, German soccer has used the term "joker" to describe a substitute who comes off the bench to score a goal. Klinsmann didn’t bring on defender John Brooks solely for that purpose against Ghana, but after replacing Matt Besler at halftime, Brooks provided a fairy-tale finish by heading a corner kick from another sub, Graham Zusi, into the net for the winner.

Nearly all of Klinsmann’s in-game moves have paid off, though deploying Omar Gonzalez in midfield rather than adding him to the back line proved costly when Portugal sub Silvestre Varela found space to head Cristiano Ronaldo’s cross for a last-gasp equalizer. Portugal needed that goal because sub DeAndre Yedlin, used off the bench at right mid to add energy and some attacking zip, got to the byline and cut back a ball that Zusi centered and Clint Dempsey directed into the net off his abdomen for a 2-1 U.S. lead.

Gonzalez retained the centerback spot against Germany, which used a halftime sub by head coach Joachim Loew to turn the tables against the USA. Miroslav Klose didn’t score what would be a record 16th World Cup goal yet he caused enough problems in the U.S. back line that Thomas Mueller latched onto a rebound to score the game’s only goal. Alejandro Bedoya and Yedlin came off the bench again but seldom bothered the confident Germans.

After leaving the first game with a hamstring injury, forward Jozy Altidore has not played but he’s working to get fit for the round of 16 game against Belgium. One of Klinsmann’s key decisions will be whether he can risk Altidore as a starter, or use him as a joker if needed.

  1. Mark Hardt
    commented on: June 28, 2014 at 10:24 a.m.
    I think you need to play the joker from the start. To exploit a slow Belgian back I would start Yedlin and then bring in a defensive joker (Davis or Mix) or an offensive one (Altidore or Green) if you need more offense. It is time to show Green is here for a reason not just to soak up the atmosphere ahead of 2018 Russia. We could have used Boyd as a fill in for Altidore instead a Green who really fits in nowhere.
  1. Kent James
    commented on: June 28, 2014 at 12:01 p.m.
    I didn't realize JK brought Gonzalez into the midfield (but that does explain his positioning on the goal). Given Cameron is most naturally a defensive center mid (in my opinion), he should have put Gonzalez on the back line and moved Cameron up (though I could see the risk in putting someone off the bench into such a high stakes role). While Ridge is right about the importance of efficiency (and that a lot of running can indicate other problems), given the formation (Dempsey by himself up top), Bradley has to pressure the other team's defense as the 2nd forward, in addition to his role in the midfield. And while Bradley does do a lot of running at 3/4 speed to put mild pressure on those defenders/midfielders, most of which does no good, he is very adept at suddenly going very high pressure and stripping opponents of the ball and starting counters. It's like a forward who makes a lot of runs that are not rewarded, on the chance that ultimately, one will pay off.
  1. Karl Schreiber
    commented on: June 28, 2014 at 10:06 p.m.
    Two questions: Ridge Mahoney: Who are the (at least) five goalkeepers in the EPL who are better than Tim Howard, please? Just curious. ESPN Producers: Can you please NOT assign Ian Darke the USA - Belgium game?! His continuous babbling distracts from the game action. Otherwise, I applaud ESPN/ABC for an excellent job.
  1. Nancy Jones
    commented on: June 29, 2014 at 1:17 p.m.
    I am so grateful that someone spoke up on Ian Darke. I'm sure he is a nice man, but you shouldn't have to mute the sound so you can enjoy a soccer game, especially a World Cup game!!
  1. Ginger Peeler
    commented on: June 30, 2014 at 10:24 a.m.
    Ian is the worst of the lot, but all of ESPN's play-by-play Brits talk almost nonstop. It detracts from the action on the field. The best ESPN announcer I've heard is Fernando Palomo...but his color commentator was so into his info at one point that he missed a goal in the Mexico-Netherlands game. Inexcusable!!! The games are some of the best I've seen of many World Cups, but the announcing is awful.
  1. Chris Sapien
    commented on: June 30, 2014 at 2:54 p.m.
    CBs should have been positioned at the top of the 18 throughout stoppage time vs portugal. There was no excuse that all three CBs were running back to our own goal before the portugal equalizer. Should not even been thinking about holding an offside line. Go USA! Howard: Beasley Besler Cameron Fabian: Zusi Bradley Jones Yedlin: Dempsey Johannsson. Altidore & Mix first two subs, then Bedoya to help hold lead.
  1. Alex Sicre
    commented on: June 30, 2014 at 8:28 p.m.
    Ian Darke has got to goooooo!

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